Photographer: Andy Jackson
The year 2023 changed Keke Palmer. During the last year, she became a media mogul as CEO of KeyTV and the record label Big Bosses Entertainment, turned 30, became a mom, embraced her postpartum curves, released the visual album Big Boss — her most vulnerable project to date — and shared more about her romantic life with the public than she ever had before.
Palmer has been in the spotlight for the majority of her life, but in 2023 she endured never-ending inspection by flashlight. The public had been let in and refused to leave. Palmer, who further cemented her status as a national treasure in 2022 with a momentous, career-defining year, became even more forward-facing as tragedy encroached. Her hardships could never overshadow all that she’s built, but they did threaten to cast a shadow over her spirit.
A few days before we meet in Brooklyn, Palmer posted a video of herself holding her child and shooting defiant glances around the room. “When reality TV makes everyone believe all celebrities’ lives are just one big marketing strategy and scheme but my life is truly unraveling at the seams and I just wear trauma like a Dolce Gabbana coat because Sharon didn’t raise no b*tch,” read the caption.
Keke Palmer is not easily broken, but she is not shatterproof. The cracks are there, like curvatures in twinkling stained glass; the trauma coat rests on her shoulders like epaulets. The hyper-visible version of Palmer is often praised for her plucky, candid relatability, but I understand the woman who sits across from me more than ever before.
“I think life is bittersweet in that way,” Palmer says now, quietly. “How I feel about life is that you go through so many different things and it always ends up somewhere beautiful. Sometimes we don't get what we want, but it all will make sense if you give it a chance. It'll make sense because God doesn't forget. It all comes back around.”
“Actually, I want to show you real quick,” Palmer says, unlocking her iPhone and scrolling through her camera roll. She finds the video in seconds. Her son, Leo, short for Leodis, is lying down, blowing raspberries, and each time he completes an impressively loud razz, he lets out a thunderous, hearty laugh. On a muffled December afternoon that teases snow, we are nestled in the back corner of an empty restaurant in Williamsburg, and Leo’s glee almost echoes.
She swipes and shows me another video: Leo sits on the floor in a grandpa-esque striped-pajama set, giggling directly into the camera at his reflection. His chortles become guffaws, and soon enough, he’s howling with full-throated, full-bodied joy — so much so that he almost tips over.
Watching Palmer rewatch these videos is like seeing rain finally hit the desert. She drinks in her baby boy’s delicious ebullience, and her smile spreads across the room. “His personality…," she says. "He’s really the best, best, best.”
Leo, who will turn one in February, was born only a few months after Palmer’s digital network KeyTV — which she also jokingly yet protectively refers to as her “baby”— entered the world. KeyTV has grown into a creator-championing engine and innovative content platform with over one million subscribers within its first year, all while Palmer has continued to host, act, and release music independently.
Palmer has now spent a full year mothering, with her “babies” growing up together. Running a startup, maintaining multiple careers, and raising an infant require a certain level of leadership, passion, resilience, and, well, patience. Motha considers the “insane” passage of time, reflecting on what year one of her son’s life and KeyTV’s existence has taught her. After a long pause, she looks up through her oversize prescription glasses. “That it takes a village,” she says. “It takes a village.”
Fifteen years ago, when more people knew her as Akeelah or True Jackson than Keke, building a media empire would have been the “last thing” on Palmer's professional bucket list. Still, she says, the enterprise was basically “inevitable… [It’s] a graduation from my main entity and form of business in this industry, which has been to be a talent.”
Even at her coziest and most low-key in a burgundy hoodie, black Yankee fitted, sweatpants, and platform UGGs, you can tell Palmer is someone who can command a boardroom, even just by her gait. There’s a cool presence and power to Lauren Keyana Palmer that is just as evident without her glittering, vaudevillian Keke cloak.
KeyTV is the next step in Palmer’s evolution, the answer to an internal inquiry about her legacy that she had been considering for years. “When I was younger, I used to have so much anxiety,” she recalls. “I love to perform, but is that something that can last forever? I think I always would wonder, Is it something that times out? Obviously, you have people that have been acting their entire careers…. but I just never knew how I could scale myself."
She continues, "If you were a lawyer, you want to get to be a partner. I didn't understand what the version of that was for me. Some people become directors or they become a producer or they become the head of Paramount.”
But for someone who is perhaps the crown jewel of multihyphenates, a one-lane route seemed like a disservice to her skillset. It may appear as though 30-year-old Palmer is close to reaching an achievement cap, but it seems her career ceiling doesn’t really exist. This month, for her work on NBC’s Password revival, she became the first woman in 15 years to win a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Host for a Game Show — and the first Black woman to win or be nominated. After landing her critically acclaimed role as Emerald Haywood in Jordan Peele’s 2022 sci-fi horror film Nope, Palmer found herself standing at yet another new threshold of her career. “I just felt like, ‘I'm successful. What more do I need?’” she says. “I was like, ‘I'm good. So now what?’"
Palmer’s two decades in the industry, however, demand an ever-evolving definition of success. Her current definition is combining her passions — reaching back, paying it forward, and making entertainment — to empower the next generation of artists of color and share all that she’s learned. “When you create generational wealth within underserved communities, you create wealth within our entire economy,” Palmer says. “My hope and my desire is to teach people the skills that I have, to teach them how to brand themselves, how to be entrepreneurs, how to work within a system, but also use that system to create something that's unique to them. In doing that… I'm not behind the eight ball. And now my son," she adds, "he can start at stage 10 instead of having to start at stage one like I did. I want other people to have that [too].”
She could have done it alone, but she chose not to. With her three founding partners, dubbed Keymakers, Lenoria “Nora” Addison, Jeff Lopez, and Chelsea Sanders, Palmer launched KeyTV on November 3, 2022. The platform has produced more than 23 projects and over 1,100 hours of content to date. KeyTV is now home to several short films, scripted and unscripted series, which range widely in genre, as well as podcasts, talk shows, after-shows, and Palmer’s own independent music videos.
Presently, KeyTV is a Facebook and YouTube-based network (with the YouTube channel seemingly converted from Palmer’s former personal channel) and is moving from an intimate user-acquisition phase to a sustainable system-design phase. The team’s collective vision for the future of KeyTV is to not only be “bigger than Netflix,” but something even larger, something peerless.
“It's tough to make comparisons because I don't think what we're doing has been done,” says Sanders, who plays a dual role of a general executive and a co-creator on the platform’s unscripted series. Sanders is also the current vice president of brand strategy & development for Refinery29 Multicultural and a cofounder of R29 Unbothered. “What we're creating isn’t comparable to what currently exists... What we know to be true and what we've heard from our audience is that they're not getting what they need. We're not trying to create more noise; we're trying to create something that actually makes more sense.”
Palmer and Sanders see the next phase of KeyTV as a sprawling metamorphosis that seems to be unexplainable, but they are far more concerned with action than words, anyway. Though KeyTV currently presents as another streaming platform, it will aim to fill a void in the system for the tech generations, specifically millennial and Gen Z creatives of color. The vision is a multipurpose storytelling hub. Yes, a streamer, but also an institution that echoes the spirit of a trade school and adapts the model of an empowerment collective, all with a hybrid digital and in-person presence.
The possibilities are, almost overwhelmingly, endless: technical craft and business-focused classes with varying tracks of expertise, production equipment to rent, experiential meet-ups and curated conversations to attend, and, optimistically, grants to be awarded and investors to fund dreams. But the cornerstone of KeyTV is the community the founders plan to build beyond viewership. Ideally, a part of the platform will operate with “IMDb Pro energy with a Patreon spin,” Sanders says, while Palmer adds that it'll be “a LinkedIn meets Yelp meets Meet dot com.”
All in all, KeyTV is a mission to grant access and bridge the opportunity gap, a necessary entity for Black and brown talent — in front of and behind the camera — who face sky-high barriers to break into the entertainment industry. When Viola Davis won the Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a drama series in 2015, becoming the first Black woman to do so, she said in her acceptance speech, “Let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” KeyTV was built to unlock opportunity.
The Keymakers describe KeyTV as a family affair. The executives have known Palmer closely for three, eight, and even 14 years, with work relationships blooming into friendships and further enriching their collaboration. According to Palmer, this closeness allows them to care about each others’ successes and about each other, not just as coworkers, but people.
Addison, who serves as a general executive at KeyTV, agrees. “I like working in that type of capacity because there's more emotional stake in whatever it is that you're working on,” she says. Addison previously worked in talent partnerships at AwesomenessTV, and has an extensive background in producing, entrepreneurship, and advertising. “Which then brings more passion, more drive, more excitement to the things that you're doing.”
Palmer says she wanted to be more than just the platform’s namesake, and when it came to building out her core KeyTV team, she wanted to tap go-getters she knew she would learn from. “I wanted to be a leader and a collaborator that people felt that they could trust, that would provide the skills and the support needed to run a business,” she says. Every team needs an anchor — in tug of war, the most important player is in the back. “Hey, I'm ready to hold all y’all asses down,” she jokes in agreement. “I got y'all back for real.”
“I know everyone says Keke is like your cousin, your auntie, your inner best friend,” says Sanders. “She is that, but she's also a human…. She's able to root [ideas] in love and care and precision in a way that only a Virgo can, and that only someone who knows what they're doing can…. I wouldn't do this with anyone else.”
Lopez, who came from working with Live Nation and Sony Pictures, was Chris Brown’s former head of marketing. Now he oversees all internal digital and social marketing for KeyTV. Lopez also praises Palmer’s Virgo-ness, commending her detail-oriented approach to the company. “More leaders need to be a lot like Keke because she's very hands on with every aspect,” he says. “The copywriting, the titles, all of the intricacies, the technical aspects of putting a show together, the rollout, down to the calendar. She's very involved — and she wants everyone's feedback.”
Addison calls Palmer a “visionary, like a human popcorn machine of ideas.” Sanders agrees, but champions Palmer’s collaborative nature above all of her other leadership qualities. “She cares about the things I care about, about what we want to do, about the things that I know are important for this community,” says Sanders. “She's able to say, ‘I appreciate your opinion, and I will take it in.’ And that's really special — not everyone does that.”
Those who pour resources into their communities, or are architects of a community itself, never shy away from investing their time, money, and energy — it’s all for the cause. But investing in themselves? That’s a different story entirely.
“I feel like I've been saying it’s getting better for years,” Palmer says hesitantly. “The only skills that I’ve really homed in on the most was my work, my craft. Nothing wrong with that; however, it's almost like brushing your teeth every damn day to perfection, but you ain't wash your ass.”
She jokes, “I have no hygiene problems,” adding that she has struggled since her youth to differentiate between nurturing her skills and nurturing her soul. “For me, it's always been about catching up to what else I had to offer.”
The stakes, and the self-imposed pressure, became higher after the birth of Leo. “Because I love my son so much, I gotta love me so much,” she says. And she deeply loves her son, whom she shares with her former partner Darius Jackson. Palmer spends six straight minutes gushing over the little person she created, describing his personality while almost vibrating with love. (Leo is, according to his mom, stoic yet expressive, social yet introspective, heedful yet goofy.)
By doing the work and investing the personal time, Palmer says she is “excited” to love on and learn more about herself. She’s back on the Pilates mat. She’s enrolled in cooking classes. (“I'm really freaking thrilled about it, girl, because I always wanted to be that girl that's like, ‘I cooked. I'm the host. I made Beef Wellington from scratch.’”) Palmer says the me-time is necessary, as she feels she’s either “always working” or with Leo. I tell her that from the outside looking in, it seems as though, since she gave birth, she’s actually been working even more.
“I don't know if it's that the work has changed or it's the way that I'm working that has changed,” she says. Now, it’s easier for her to discern which jobs are absolutely necessary and which would disturb her — and Leo’s — comfort. She prefers gigs where her son can be on set, and even better, jobs that she can do from home. Palmer says her podcast and social content are all shot at home, as are some of her voiceover roles.
Motherhood has refined her work ethic, which is already famed. “You know they call you—”
“Keep a Check. Keke ‘Keep a Check’ Palmer,” she nods, laughing.
During a recent viral conversation with Gayle King for SiriusXM radio, actor Taraji P. Henson opened up about pay inequality for Black women in Hollywood. “I hear people go, ‘You work a lot.’ I have to," she said. "The math ain’t mathing…. And if I can’t fight for [those] coming up behind me then what the f*ck am I doing?’” Many Black actors have expressed their support for and solidarity with Henson’s experiences, including Palmer.
There may be first-class flights and fashion shows and a beaming face on the side of a city bus, but there are also glam squads and publicists and attorneys. There is a cost. There are bills. The romance of the entertainment industry is especially lacking for Black women, as the need to negotiate for a larger paycheck is often snuffed out by fear of their direct removal from or replacement on a project. Hollywood is the land of grind culture dressed up in couture, and Keke “Keep a Check” Palmer is hustling to survive. “I keep a job because I HAVE to,” Palmer wrote on Instagram in support of Henson. “We ALL work multiple jobs and we may like some but also because we HAVE to.”
As a result of the “sacrifices I made so young” and her bustling work schedule, Palmer is parenting the way she’d always imagined. It is because of her economic security that she can afford to be “more patient.” “I 100% feel like money doesn't buy you happiness. I'm not always happy because of my money. But the [financial] security I have with my son is a stress reliever,” she says. “I'm not saying that a mom that is struggling isn't patient, because I know that they are. But if they're not, it's like, ‘I get it, Miss Lady….’ So when I look at the position that I'm in and the kind of parent that I am or that I'm becoming, I think it's remiss [not] to say that I have a lot of help.”
It takes a village. “The village is really important,” she reiterates, noting that her work village and her home village share a few principles. Positive headspaces. Respect. No judgment. Unconditional support. However, when it comes to her parenting village, “it’s a bit less open” in terms of expanding the home team; her central goal is to protect the village from interlopers. “It's more about keeping Leo insulated with the people that I know and trust, that don't just love him, but love themselves. That's really big. It's important that he has good examples. He observes everything. It's about giving him the proper role models and making sure my family is around.”
Palmer lives with her sister and her sister’s children, which is “all by design.” She shares that her parents will soon move to California to be closer to them, too, as that’s how she grew up in Chicago. She and her cousins were close, going to church together every weekend, taking part in other deep-rooted family traditions. “Tradition is a big part of the village as well,” she adds.
She wants to continue her family’s traditions and start new ones of her own, like mommy-and-me music classes, Christmas vacations to the Caribbean, themed holiday photo shoots that Leo can eventually pass down to his own children. Palmer’s tribe is the key to her story, her success, and her staying power; her dedication to kinship even lives in her son’s name. With Celtic roots, Leodis means “people living by the strongly flowing river.” A village.
Last July, Palmer attended a performance of Usher’s Las Vegas residency wearing a sheer black dress. Serenading famous women in the audience has been a viral staple of Usher’s residency; the singer has serenaded everyone from Mary J. Blige to Issa Rae to Doja Cat. When Usher serenaded Palmer and the video started making the rounds, Palmer’s boyfriend of two years and the father of her child, Darius Jackson, publicly shamed her online, criticizing her suggestive outfit choice as a mother. He doubled down after receiving massive backlash, invoking his “standards and morals.”
Palmer did not directly comment on the incident. Instead, in the weeks following, she changed lyrics during a performance to celebrate her body and her independence. She launched a line of merchandise centered on the words “I’M A MOTHA.” She starred in the music video for Usher’s summer single, “Boyfriend,” and delivered cheeky dialogue near the end that served as a wink to the drama. She and Jackson unfollowed each other on social media, but seemed to temporarily reconcile in late August and early September.
Then, in November, Palmer was granted a domestic violence restraining order against Jackson and filed for sole physical and legal custody of their son. Palmer accused Jackson of more than one instance of physical abuse and submitted in her filing graphic screenshots of what appeared to be security footage. Jackson later filed his own restraining order, alleging that Palmer was physically abusive, adding texts he alleged were related to the incidents.
Earlier this month, Palmer’s restraining order against Jackson was extended by six months after the pair agreed to postpone a hearing to engage in mediation before a private judge. Despite the fact that Palmer cannot directly address the case due to legal reasons, the kindred fanbase she has strengthened over two decades has rallied behind her.
Now, she offers a hopeful comment, saying she would like to shift the focus in the months ahead. “I put focus on things that I see can give power to others,” she says after a pause. “I feel like that's my [side of the] parasocial relationship. For me, the most important thing is to keep people uplifted. I know what I represent, and I know a lot of people that feel like I represent them. I just care most about continuing to put focus on the things that I know are going to be positive and uplifting to others.”
Since commanding screens as a tween, Palmer has seemed herculean. Her charisma, her brilliance, and her ambition have created an unyielding persona and an unrivaled entertainer — but her village and her son have created a fearless woman of purpose. She’s resilient. She’s had to be. “I'm proud of it, because life is always going to throw sh*t at you... That's something I learned as a kid.”
Palmer has spoken at length about sacrificing her childhood as the teenage breadwinner of her family as a successful child star. She’s grieved for the “invaluable” time in her siblings’ lives she’ll never get back. But she’s also aware of how much time she could gain thanks to her sacrifices.
Keke Palmer could very much retire at 30, raise her son, and disappear from the public eye for the rest of her life. But despite her maximizing celebrity and the invasive speculation it triggers, she has not walked away. She is making a choice. She is still here. Why?
“I don’t know. I think the timer has started,” she says with a laugh. “I think it's because I just haven't felt it yet. But the timer, I know that it's around the corner. I don't know when exactly, but it's around the corner.”
Suddenly, we’re both aware of the ticking. With the time she has left, she answers a question about her legacies — the legacies she’s building for her son and every entertainer who comes after her, the legacy she will leave behind in the form of Leo and KeyTV.
“The main thing I want those legacies to be is [a call] to use your power for good, to use what you have to create spaces and systems for other people to thrive,” Palmer says. “I just don't believe in holding everything. I don't believe in gatekeeping. I'm not a coward. What would that do? I think it's based in fear. If I'm speaking on it from a compassionate place, I think people that gatekeep are afraid. So I'm not scared.”
She continues, “I think about my son. I don't want to raise him to be afraid. I don't want to raise him to have no boundaries or for him to be naïve either. But I want to raise him to know that if life is a school, get out there and learn. A part of learning in this place, I think, is to love and to know how to first be unconditionally loving to yourself, so that you know how to love others and be of service to others in a way that doesn't disadvantage them but instead empowers them. That's what I would hope that the legacy is for me. And for anyone that wants to follow me, I hope that's what they see too.”
The ticking grows louder. A clock strikes somewhere. A timekeeper, or perhaps a member of her team appears on the periphery. Palmer stands to leave. The timer she has set for herself hasn’t gone off quite yet, but it’s around the corner. I watch as she rounds it and recedes from view. And still, the entire restaurant carries her presence.
Photographer: Andy Jackson
1st Photo Assistant: Austin Durant
Lighting Tech: Sebastian Jones
Digitech: Emilie Fong
Retoucher: Alberto Baro
Driver: Eddie Lopez
Location: Mountain House LA
Set/Prop Designer: Casha Doemland
Sr. Fashion Editor & Stylist: Tchesmeni Leonard
Stylist Assistant: Larry Simmons
Associate Fashion Editor: Kat Thomas
Assistant Fashion Editor: Tascha Berkowitz
Tailor: Tomi Randall
Hair Stylist for Keke: Keshaun Williamson
Makeup Artist for Keke: Kenya Alexis using Revlon
Hair Stylist for Keymakers: Oscar Pallares Gomez
Makeup Artist for Keymakers: Jasmin Stephen
Manicurist: Sreynin Peng using Apres
Production Assistant: Richard "Ricky" Smith
Design Director: Emily Zirimis
Designer: Liz Coulbourn
Visual Editor: Bea Oyster
Editor in Chief: Versha Sharma
Executive Editor: Dani Kwateng
Features Director: Brittney Mcnamara
Senior Culture Editor: P. Claire Dodson
Entertainment News Editor & Story Writer: Kaitlyn McNab
Associate Entertainment Director: Eugene Shevertalov
Associate Audience Development Director: Mandy Velez Tatti
Senior Social Media Manager: Honestine Fraser
Social Media Manager: Jillian Selzer
Research Editor: Yulia Khabinsky
Copy Editor: Dawn Rebecky
Video Director: Funmi Sunmonu
Producer: Juliet Lopez
Associate Producer: Rafael Vasquez
Director of Photography: AJ Young
Line Producer: Jen Santos
Production Managers: Andressa Pelachi and Kevin Balash
Camera Operator: Osiris Nascimento
Sound: Kara Johnson
Production Assistants: Brock Spitaels and Ariel Labasan
Social Video Director: Ali Farooqui
Social Video Director: Catherine Mhloyi
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue
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